Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 30, 2013
Last Sunday night, my wife and I were listening to the Lux Theatre Radio Production of The Letter, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, recorded on March 6th, 1944. It starred Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, reprising their roles from the film, and Vincent Price, showing up new to the production for the radio version. As we started listening to it something became apparent that I would not have predicted: Bette Davis didn’t come off too well. The inflections were right, the cadence of her voice clipped and dramatic as always but, somehow, there was something missing. What was missing was her, of course. Her face, her eyes, her hands, her cigarettes, her… everything. Bette Davis is the full package. You don’t get a nuanced spoken word performance from her, you get the full monty. You get vocal language, eye language and body language. Which takes me to the second surprise: Herbert Marshall was the best thing in the production followed closely by Vincent Price. Marshall didn’t exactly burn the screen up with fiery charisma but he had a great sonorous voice and on the radio, it was perfect for the job. Marshall’s survival was based, like several other actors, on his command of the scripted language.
Some actors just have that voice. And, yes, actresses, too. There may not be as many with a deep, rich voice simply because of biology, but they’re out there. When an actor or actress has that voice, that rich, layered, textured voice, it can mitigate a lack of charisma onscreen. And when that do have a lot of onscreen charm and charisma, it’s even better. Now, Marshall was a good actor and I like him in a few things, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder and Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, but he never really commands the screen like he commands a microphone. Once his voice is all he has to work with, he can blow your onscreen charisma out of the water. Heck, he would’ve been a natural for audio books had they happened a few decades earlier.
His costar in that production, Vincent Price (who would act with him again in The Fly), also had a voice that became as famous for itself as the person attached to it. It lent itself to the gothic drama of horror and the narration of anything creepy. In fact, several horror actors, from Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre to Bela Lugosi and John Carradine, had magnificent voices that served them well in the industry even when the onscreen role opportunities were slim.
Of course, if I’m listing my favorites (and that’s what this is, favorites, not an all-inclusive listing), I can’t go without mentioning Orson Welles, whose voice was so commanding that I can’t imagine him ever playing a wallflower or Capra-esque Everyman. No way, not with that voice. No, Orson always had to play big characters. I’ve always said, and I’ll say it again, that the character of Harry Lime is so played up in The Third Man for so long before you see him (his old friend loves him, his girl adores him despite his shady dealings and the authorities are obsessed with him) that when he finally does appear he has to be Orson Welles. He simply couldn’t be anybody else.
Now, of course, Welles played smaller than life characters on occasion, even in his own films (The Lady from Shanghai) but they had an exotic quality to them. Even playing a lowlife in Touch of Evil, he makes Hank Quinlan seem like a U.S. Border Kingpin, not a detective. And a lot of it was because of that voice, that extraordinary voice.
Much of the power of the voice was exploited on the radio for decades but once radio programs began to fade, actors with commanding voices found most of their voice work opportunities in narration. This is where James Earl Jones came into his own. After some minor success, like a small role in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, he became famous on Broadway for his portrayal of Jack Johnson pastiche Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope, for which he won a Tony. In 1970, he starred in the film adaptation with fellow Broadway alumni, Jane Alexander and received his first Oscar nomination. But still, lasting success eluded him until George Lucas took note of that voice and thought it would be perfect for Darth Vader in Star Wars. And he was right, it was perfect.
After that, Jones was an icon. Practically everything on tv in the eighties was narrated by him, including the intro to CNN’s main newshour and in 1994, voiced Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King. Jones will always be a great actor, from his tv and stage work to his film and voiceover work but most people will always know him for that voice before anything else. And let’s face it, once you do Star Wars, that’s what most people are going to know you for, period.
Taking up the mantle of the great narrative voice, Morgan Freeman came onto the scene back in the seventies on soap operas and children’s shows like Another World and The Electric Company before crashing the Hollywood scene with his movie stealing performance in Street Smart. It wasn’t long before Freeman was starring and/or co-starring in several productions a year, receiving multiple nominations and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But it was his voice that insured that, no matter what happens to his screen career, he’ll always have a career in narrating.
With actresses, it doesn’t happen as often but when it does, it’s a winner. Lauren Bacall, at the age of 19 (20 upon its release), was able to stand right next to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not and hold her own because that voice of hers made her seem at least twenty years wiser. And it continued straight through The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo. A turn of phrase, a cutting barb or a sly come-on sounded completely different coming out of Bacall’s mouth. She had a voice that made other actresses sound like little girls. And, predictably, just like her male vocal counterparts, she ended up doing a tremendous amount of vocal work. I probably recognized her voice from television ads as a kid long before I actually knew her as an actress from the movies.
Following in her footsteps was Kathleen Turner, who took the husky feminine voice and used it in ways even Bacall hadn’t imagined. It was that damn voice that made her femme fatale in Body Heat so dangerous yet enticing. By 1983, she was already parodying that character in Steve Martin’s The Man with Two Brains and doing it like she’d been playing that character her whole life. Five years later, inevitably, she was doing voice work, providing that speaking voice (singing voice by Amy Irving) for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Finally, just to round out my favorites, let me go back a bit to an actress who started out in German cinema before sailing across the pond, and bringing her director with her, to make movies in Hollywood. Marlene Dietrich not only had the rich, deep voice but the German accent which lent her already wonderful voice an added layer of the exotic. Dietrich didn’t narrate much, like everyone else on this list, but she did quite a few songs and, boy, could she sing! Dietrich remains one of the few people whose version of any given song runs a very good chance of being the best possible recorded version of that song.
There are many other great actors and actresses known more for their voice than anything else (or, at least as much for their voice as anything else) to listen to them is a rare treat. These are just some of my favorites. I’m glad Bette Davis starred in the Lux Theatre Radio Production of The Letter, it gave me a chance to notice the diffence in voices and then, of course, I just started thinking about all the great voices in entertainment and started falling in love again. Hey, I never wanted to but what am I to do? I can’t help it.
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